Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Recent Reading

Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet

A readable, spirited examination of what the Victorians actually thought and did, as opposed to the starchy stereotype. (Did they *really* cover up piano limbs? Read it and find out!) Given the amount of research I’ve done on the nineteenth century over the years, I wasn’t shocked to find that Victorians weren’t all stuffy prudes, but I did find a lot of interesting information. However, the author sometimes defends the Victorians against well-justified complaints about, for example, clitoridectomy and infibulation for masturbators, by pointing out that such practices weren’t confined to Victoria’s reign but continued well into the 20th century. “Well, everybody else does it too” is not a scholarly argument.

Grade: B

In a Sunburned Country and I’m a Stranger Here Myself, both by Bill Bryson

I love Bill Bryson. He’s one of the few authors who can get me into an uncontrollable laughing jag, which sounds like I’m crying or possibly being strangled. It’s not just the individual lines, but the cumulative effect of pages of hilarity. Bryson is mostly a travel writer (he’s also done several excellent books on the English language), and he specializes in Things That Go Wrong, without being nearly as whiny and mean-spirited as Paul Theroux can be. Also, he comments on the kinds of things I look at when I’m traveling: landscape and architecture, for example, and food.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself could be subtitled “Tales of Culture Shock.” It started as a series of columns for a British weekly, explaining Life in America to his British readers. Bryson had just moved back to the US after spending 20 years (his whole adult life) in England. With his English wife and their 4 kids, he settled in New Hampshire and promptly freaked out at the new commonplaces of American life: 24-hour hotlines for every product, including dental floss; junk food; cable TV; the varying quality of consumer goods (“If my son can have his choice of a seemingly limitless range of scrupulously engineered, biomechanically efficient footwear, why does my computer keyboard suck?”).

In a Sunburned Country is a classic travel book about Australia. I learned a great many things I didn’t know about Australian history, geography, culture, trees, and architecture. But there just weren’t that many funny bits. I’ve no objection to learning about Australia, but I got the book from the library in hopes of laughing until the tears ran, and it just didn’t happen.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: A
In a Sunburned Country: B-

Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church by Uta Ranke-Heinemann

Whew. Two thousand years of theological misogyny and what the author calls “sexual pessimism,” which sounds like being afraid you won’t get any; in fact, the term implies being afraid you might, since it means “thinking all sex is sinful.” It’s all carefully documented and exhaustively researched (though secondary sources tend to be in German; many of the primary sources are, of course, in Latin). The author quotes at length from papal bulls, accredited books by various Doctors of the Church, and other documents that bear the imprimatur of the Catholic Church.

The book is organized by topic, as a series of short essays on various specific areas of concern (contraception, abortion, homosexuality, incest, and so forth). The discussions of doctrine and practice are fascinating and horrifying. Did you know that until the 1700s, the Church taught that deaf people were automatically damned? “Faith comes by hearing,” according to St. Paul. Therefore, no hearing = no faith = damnation = treat them like dogs. There was an uproar in the pulpits when some brave and kindly soul started to educate deaf people. It was unnatural! Contrary to the will of God!

The book is generally witty and well-argued, though I certainly don’t agree with all of her conclusions. For example, in discussing the Church’s doctrine of the Virgin Birth, she lists the three points of that doctrine: that Mary remained virgo intacta (that’s right, her hymen remained in place despite bearing a child), that the birth occurred without pain, and that there was no afterbirth. Baby Jesus apparently emerged “like a ray of light” from her body. (This vaginal laser beam conjures images too dreadful to contemplate — definitely much worse than a nice normal afterbirth.)

Yes, this all argues a pathological loathing of the flesh and of women. But Ranke-Heinemann pushes her argument too far. I cannot agree that the Church is trying to rob Mary of her motherhood. In my book, motherhood has at least as much to do with raising a child as with conception and birth, and you don’t have to pant and ache and bleed to become a mother. (Anyone raising a child is going to do enough of all three over the years.) The author doesn’t seem to notice that she’s belittling adoptive mothers, plus falling into the error that the pain of childbirth is what makes it “real.” Does anesthetic somehow negate the experience?

Some sections reminded me of the classic “Every Sperm is Sacred” scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Reading this book, I got the distinct impression that Cleese, Idle, and company were in no way exaggerating the theological importance of semen. Python, however, didn’t touch the corollary, which is that female emissions like menstrual blood and afterbirth are beyond profane. The disgust and shame and loathing many theologians felt for these normal God-given fluids is sad and puzzling.

The section on homosexuality is cursory, and there are times when the writing style is awkward. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book. It demonstrates all too clearly the difficulties that can result when visceral hatred is cloaked in the language and techniques of logic. Even St. Thomas Aquinas ends up tying himself in theo/logical knots.

I don’t think that pointing out the Church’s flaws is blasphemous. Nor do I condemn the entire history of Christianity on the basis of various human theological distortions. (I am in fact a devout Christian.) We need to know and understand where we make mistakes and what the consequences of prejudice are.

Though it doesn’t deal directly with pedophilia, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven can help readers understand why the Church has not been able to recognize and deal with sexually exploitive priests. After 2,000 years of twisted, self-contradictory rhetoric about sex, the Church may have been too blinded by hysteria to see even normal needs in any kind of perspective. Compared to the sheer horror felt at having sex with women, molesting little children just may not have carried the grave weight it should.

Grade: A

The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible by Jonathan Kirsch

How often does a book of Bible stories keep you up reading half the night? I recently reread this book, and I was as fascinated with it as I had been when it first came out some years ago.

Kirsch looks at a number of neglected, difficult, or mysterious stories about women in the Old Testament. Some are more familiar than others: the rape of David’s daughter Tamar by one of her half-brothers is a a fairly well-known story. But the tale of Zipporah’s ad-hoc circumcision of her infant son is not one I had ever heard in Sunday School. These stories — some given no more than a few lines in the Bible — rival the X-Files and General Hospital for labyrinthine plot, inexplicable motives, dysfunctional families, unbridled lust, and bloodthirsty violence.

The book combines storytelling with analysis, so you can read two versions of the story: as told in the Bible and as fleshed out and reimagined by Kirsch. Then Kirsch brings together Bibilical scholarship, traditional Jewish commentary, and various other interpretations to throw light on the meaning and origin of these strange tales.

The result is riveting. These tales hint at the great difference between God’s standards and those of human beings, and they promise forgiveness for even the most dreadful sins.

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